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Surveillance and Moral Community: Anthropologies of Monitoring in Germany and Britain

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SAMCOM (Surveillance and Moral Community: Anthropologies of Monitoring in Germany and Britain)

Période du rapport: 2022-07-01 au 2023-12-31

In the wake of the transformative digitization of society, digital monitoring is everywhere. Having become so ubiquitous at such an accelerated pace, these technological transformations have taken place quicker than the time needed to reflect on the social and ethical benefits and drawbacks of mass monitoring, particularly through the rise of smartphones. Societies beyond Europe have already developed fully-formed societal models around mass monitoring, that Europe may seek to differentiate itself from. This is the time to reflect fully on social relationships to digital monitoring as they are emerging in Europe.

In light of this, this project is intended as an extensive investigation on why people use digital monitoring technologies to advance projects they value, as well as the risks for democratic societies that are posed by these technologies.

The project involves four ethnographic studies carried out by anthropologists, on the use of: i) health trackers used to support mental health in Britain ii) location-based apps to support childcare in Germany iii) the use of information security technologies iv) social critiques of digital monitoring among data activists in Germany.

We seek to understand where the line lies between 'good' or 'moral' forms of monitoring, that support human health, happiness, and dignity, and those that in some way threaten these goods. We do this primarily by talking to people themselves about the technologies, and observing how people use the technologies, to present a portrait of these different perspectives across two of its largest states, Britain and Germany.
The ethnographic research for all four studies is now completed, and through extensive fieldwork in Germany and Britain, has demonstrated the ethical and moral complexity of the effects of digital monitoring on society.

To disseminate this research we have participated in and/or organised conferences, workshops, podcasts, published a range of articles for both scholarly and lay audiences, and given presentations and lectures, as well as engaged in discussions on social media. We have also founded an 'Anthropology of Surveillance Network' to bring together anthropologists working on this subject.
One theme we are extensively developing is around the question of time, or temporality, which, we understand, is being significantly altered by new forms of digital monitoring. For example, workers now operate more in terms of time (being logged in), than in terms of space, i.e. within the enclosure of a factory or office. Meanwhile, some of the strongest critiques of these technologies come from people in societies that have a memory of the authoritarian use of monitoring in the recent past. Overall, ubiquitous monitoring appears to prolong a sensation of the present, rather than keeping space open for memories of the past, or ideas for a different kind of future. It thus carries potential future-oriented political implications, potentially expanding the temporal control of those who own and/or control the platforms, just as the clock was a major mechanism for power-holders during the industrial revolution. This said, consumers often find these technologies appealing precisely because they appear to provide a way of managing time at the micro-level, hence this is a reciprocal dynamic.

Another major theme around the link between digital monitoring and concepts of community, whether these technologies are used to care for or control those within it, or to exclude those outside it, is still in progress and will be the major focus of the remainder of the project.